Food safety is an issue in Cambodia. Due to high pressure from pests and plant diseases, vegetable producers are still predominantly relying on chemical pesticides. But there is a way out of that, as Srinivasan Ramasamy points out, with the use of bio-pesticides and pheromones that increase crop productivity while allowing for simultaneous reduction in the use of chemical pesticides.
When you walk through the streets or boulevards of Phnom Penh, one can easily come across the retail outlets named as ‘Green Vegetables and Fruits’ or ‘Chemical free Fruits and Vegetables’, etc. selling fruits and veggies. Some of them are also selling organic rice and processed foods including juices and jams.
I visited some of these outlets and interacted with the staffs. Obviously these produces are coming from an organized producer or processing groups. However, it is interesting to note that there are some (government) certification agencies for organic agriculture in Cambodia.
Although the Cambodian Organic Agriculture Association (COrAA) was founded in 2006 with the support from Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fishery as well as the Ministry of Commerce, it is functioning as a nationwide private sector organization for the promotion of organic agriculture in Cambodia. COrAA developed standards for both organic and chemical-free agriculture and provides third-party-certification to those producers following these standards.
In fact, the share of organic agriculture is extremely low compared to the conventional production system in the country. By 2015, about 0.2 percent of the total agricultural land or more than 100 groups of producers in Cambodia were occupied with organic agriculture – that too predominantly growing rice crop, followed by cashew nut, mango and pepper.
Thus, most farmers in Cambodia still resort to the use of conventional production practices. Because of high pressure from pests and plant diseases, producers are still predominantly relying on chemical pesticides.
A study conducted in selected provinces of Cambodia two years ago by a team of scientists led by World Vegetable Center (WorldVeg) headquartered in Taiwan found that 96 percent of farmers growing yard-long bean and leaf mustard are using chemical pesticides for managing the pests. Cambodian farmers mixed an average of more than three different pesticides together in a single spray, the study also found.
This study was also conducted in Lao PDR and Vietnam, and it found that all vegetable farmers sampled in Vietnam used chemical pesticides; surprisingly farmers in Laos sprayed more frequently than in the other countries.
One has to note that Cambodia imports fresh vegetables annually, worth roughly $200 million from Vietnam, Laos and Thailand. An Giang province in southern Vietnam alone exports nearly 80 tons of fruit and vegetables to Cambodia daily. Hence, food safety has become an increasing concern in Cambodia because of indiscriminate use of chemical pesticides.
The issue is not only the loads of pesticides being deployed in crop production, but also the improper harvest practices being followed. Every chemical pesticide has a designated pre-harvest interval (amount of days that must pass before the vegetable is harvested after a pesticide application), so that the pesticide residues would lower down to levels that are safer for human consumption. However, most farmers do not follow this ‘waiting period’ concept (for instance, yard-long bean and leaf mustard farmers in Cambodia observed only about 5 days PHI) leading to the harvested produces containing exceeding amounts of pesticide residues.
Generally the consumers are unaware of residue issues in their food produces. However, educated urban consumers have started to realize food safety issues and are looking for safer, chemical free produces that led to the emergence of those retail outlets selling ‘chemical free or green vegetables and fruits’ as I indicated in the beginning of this article.
In recent years, the Cambodian government also developed the standards for good agricultural practices (GAP) and organic standard and launched it as CamGAP and CA-ORGANIC. Few NGOs and private firms also applied for and got the organic certification.
Although organic rice has become a common export commodity, the organic vegetable sector is still in its primitive stages. These are all the welcoming initiatives in Cambodia in recent years. However, one major challenge that remains is the choices and availability of inputs for safer or organic crop production. For instance, very few companies are currently selling bio-pesticides (types of pesticides derived from natural materials such as animals, plants or microbes and they are very specific in their target action and safer to humans as well as environment) in Cambodia.
In order to broaden the product choices for safer vegetable production, WorldVeg in collaboration with General Directorate of Agriculture (GDA) and SNV Netherlands Development Organisation, has evaluated microbial biopesticides and pheromones (scented chemicals produced by female insects to attract the male insects of the same species) in selected provinces including Kandal, Kampong Chhnang, Prey Veng, Kratie, Stung Treng, Preah Vihear and Oddar Meanchey.
These bio-pesticides and pheromones are found to be highly effective in reducing the pest damages in vegetable crops. They increase the crop productivity while allowing for simultaneous reduction in the use of chemical pesticides substantially. Because of their specific action, bio-pesticides and pheromones allow the proliferation of natural enemies (predator and parasitoid insects that prey upon the pest insects in vegetable fields) and pollinators (insects that aid the plants in pollination and thus boosting the yield).
In contrary, chemical pesticides not only wipe out the pest insects, but also eliminate the friendly insects such as predators, parasitoids and pollinators. Thus, with the recent changes in the enabling policy and regulatory environments in Cambodia, the newer bio-pesticides and pheromones can soon enter into the agro-input markets and thus vegetable growers can have an easy access to these products in order to contribute for safer vegetable production.
Hopefully, the government and non-government agencies as well as international agricultural research and development organizations and projects will work towards this endeavor.
Srinivasan Ramasamy is an entomologist at the World Vegetable Center, Taiwan.